The South Carolina Supreme Court may have forgotten one important detail when they handed down recent decision regarding workers’ comp and police officers: When a police officer has to shoot (and possibly kill) a suspect in the line of duty, he is working. When you work, you are supposed to be entitled to workers’ compensation benefits in case of injury or disability, correct?
Not so, according South Carolina’s highest court. It’s their assertion that law officers are trained in the use of deadly force and know that there is a chance that they may have to use it. According to the court, officers who experience mental trauma after killing someone in the line of duty have no entitlement to workers’ compensation as of last Wednesday’s ruling. The statute, which was passed in a 3-2 decision, states that only officers who experience mental stress from “extraordinary and unusual” job conditions are eligible for workers’ comp coverage.
In 2009, a Spartanburg County deputy sheriff named Brandon Bently killed a man who he claimed threatened to take his gun and kill him. As a result, Bentley said, he suffered from anxiety and depression. Doctors said he was too stressed to continue his work with the sheriff’s department.
Bentley then applied for workers’ comp benefits but was denied. The commissioners involved noted that deputies both get training in deadly force and know that they might have to use it. Sheriff Chuck Wright has been a law officer of more than twenty years and says that workers’ compensation should be considered on a case-by-case basis. However, he also testified in a hearing that his deputies were trained to know that situations might arise in which they may be forced to shoot and kill someone.
As for the court, they wrote, “The use of deadly force is within the normal scope and duties of a Spartanburg County deputy sheriff.” The justices further said that state law needed to be amended to eliminate a requirement that workers who suffer mental trauma in other types of jobs must also experience “unusual and extraordinary” circumstances to qualify for compensation.
If South Carolina decided to broaden its laws on eligibility for workers’ comp relating to mental health, it would not be the only state to do so: Cited were at least five other states that the court said do not require these special circumstances.
In a dissenting opinion, Justice Kaye Hearn said she supported broadening the law and would have granted Bentley coverage.
“I would hold that Deputy Bentley’s mental injuries … are compensable because while shooting and killing a suspect in the line of duty may have been something he was trained to do, it was clearly an unusual and extraordinary part of his job as a law enforcement officer,” she said.
Jeremy Dantin, who is Bentley’s attorney, said that his client felt vindicated by the court’s statements regarding changes needed in South Carolina workers’ compensation laws. Said Dantin, “It reads like an open letter to the Legislature inviting them to change the law.”
While our law office is in Georgia, we pay attention to changes or new interpretations of the law in surrounding states, as often these states are looked upon for guidance when issues come before our high courts in Georgia (or with the Georgia legislature) as well. If you have a workplace injury in Georgia, please call our Atlanta law office at 404.354.5432.